Nearly a half-century ago, Washington took a deep dive into education policy, increasing federal intervention in local schools. The idea at the time was to improve outcomes through compensatory education—spending federal dollars through federal programs—in an attempt to narrow the achievement gap between low- and upper-income children. This intervention began in 1965 with President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
In the decades that followed, federal involvement in education quickly morphed into systemic reform, leaving no aspect of school policy out of Washington’s reach. Systemic reform from Washington has led to a proliferation of programs such as Women’s Educational Equity, the Native Hawaiian Education Program, and the Carol M. White Physical Education Program, to name just a few.
The result has been that the states are now oriented toward the hundreds of billions of dollars doled out by the federal government for the numerous federal programs it operates, not toward the needs of local parents, children, and taxpayers. In her recent testimony on the ever-expanding federal role in education, The Heritage Foundation’s Jennifer Marshall noted:
Accountability is important, but we also need to ask: Accountability to whom and for what? The accountability prescribed by No Child Left Behind focuses on fine-tuned aggregate calculations that are most useful for bureaucrats to chart school-wide, district-wide, or state-wide progress—information that is useful for the application of federal carrots and sticks. … On the other hand, that kind of detail does absorb countless hours of bureaucratic explanation and compliance calculations on the part of schools, districts, and states.
That’s characteristic of federal intervention as a whole: it is distracting because of the many compliance burdens it puts on states and localities, but it also detracts from proper accountability to those who have the most at stake in education: parents and other taxpayers.
The heavy hand of Washington isn’t just found in the 600 pages of NCLB or the complex funding formulas for low-income school districts. It’s also seen in the many pages of federal regulations that accompany the laws. The Title I program, which provides money for low-income schools, is accompanied by 65 pages of prescriptive regulations. Marshall explains further:
The complexity of these regulations is illustrated by the section that describes the duties of a paraprofessional. The regulations dictate that a paraprofessional can have seven specific duties and may not perform duties other than those listed. Furthermore, the paraprofessional may not perform his or her duties unless under the direct supervision of a teacher who meets the several requirements of a highly qualified teacher, as outlined by the regulations. The regulations also provide three components of what direct supervision means.
The growth in federal regulations directly correlates with Washington’s growing financial involvement in education over the decades. Unfortunately, no correlation has been found between that growth and increases in academic achievement. While the federal role in education has ballooned over the decades—and federal per-pupil expenditures have tripled—academic achievement, graduation rates, and our international competitiveness have languished.
It all comes down to the simple fact that those closest to the students know them best. Parents, teachers, and principals—not unelected bureaucrats in Washington—have a far better understanding of the needs of local schools and children. Continuing to funnel more money through the Department of Education in an attempt to dictate education policy from Washington will fail to improve academic outcomes.
Instead, Washington should get out of the way of state and local leaders and provide states with more flexibility with their education spending. Federal policymakers should free state and local leaders from the bureaucratic red tape and regulations that accompany federal education funding.
Conservative alternatives to NCLB, such as the A-PLUS Act, would allow states to opt out of the many federal education programs under NCLB and direct federal education dollars to the states’ most pressing needs. This approach would free schools from much of the administrative compliance burden associated with NCLB, allowing them to focus on what’s important: teaching children and being responsive to the needs of local parents and taxpayers.